The evolution of war photography
From Lebanon’s civil war to ISIL’s takeover of Mosul and Aleppo, how has war photography changed over the years?
War photography has evolved since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, influenced by the advent of new technologies and the internet. Yet many of the ethical questions from that era remain relevant today, including when to put the camera down and how to properly assess the dangers of the job.
Three Lebanese war photographers – Aline Manoukian, Patrick Baz and George Azar – spoke with Al Jazeera about their own experiences covering conflicts, and about what factors have shaped the profession in recent decades.
The accidental war photographer
“I started to be a war photographer by mistake,” Aline Manoukian says, noting that she was in her early 20s when she returned home to Lebanon after studying the history of photography in the United States.
“No one took me seriously at the beginning, even if I was taking the same risks as the men,” says Manoukian, noting that she was the first female war photographer in Lebanon.
She recalls landing her first photographic scoop in 1984 in the Beirut neighbourhood of Ras al-Nabaa, at a time when it was under lockdown, completely surrounded by snipers.
Manoukian did not know these details when an acquaintance asked whether she would like to take photos of aid workers distributing bread in Beirut. She agreed, and the next day she found herself inside a Red Cross ambulance, snapping photos as the vehicle avoided shells raining down from all directions.
When she took her pictures to the local newspaper, the editors looked at her in shock: “How did you manage to get in?” they asked, according to Manoukian’s recollection. “No one has access to that area now!”
From then on, she was officially commissioned to cover the civil war.
Decades later, Manoukian, now a mother herself, acknowledges the anguish her parents would have faced upon learning that she was entering the line of fire to cover the war. Phone lines often went down, so transmitting her photos out of the country could take hours.
Manoukian eventually went on to become the bureau chief for Reuters, receiving wide acclaim for her photographs. But in 1989, she opted to leave Lebanon for Paris, vowing never to shoot another war again. Having witnessed too many scenes of violence and death, she felt that nothing moved her any more.
“I had a few close calls,” she says. “Once, I witnessed a surprise execution right next to me. I had the person’s blood all over my face.”
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The emotional toll such events took on Manoukian is clear. Today, she takes medication to help deal with her anxiety, although she was never specifically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Manoukian’s desensitisation to violence hit her especially hard after she travelled to Armenia in 1989 to photograph survivors of the great earthquake that hit the country a year earlier. People were complaining about their living conditions in make-shift houses and she felt unable to empathise with them.
“I needed a big dose of tragedy to feel anything,” she says. “I have never [taken] drugs. But it’s as if you offer a drug addict, who has been doing heroin all his life, a joint. And you think, ‘What do I do with this?'”
Asked to cover the conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, she refused. “I felt as if I had my feet in cement,” she says. “I could not go to cover another war.”
Addicted to the craft
“I had always wanted to be where the action happened; I never felt I had a mission,” says French-Lebanese photographer Patrick Baz. “I just wanted to take pictures and tell a story. I had a news addiction.”
Just 12 when Lebanon’s war erupted, Baz started working as a war photographer in his late teens.
Lebanon became his training ground. Photographing the Israeli invasion in 1982, he remembers the difficulty in covering a conflict that was unfolding in his own country. “It was very difficult because I had to be neutral in a country – my country – which was being occupied,” Baz says.
Starting as a freelance photographer in Lebanon, he went on to cover numerous other regional conflicts for the news agency AFP, from the first Intifada in Palestine, to the Gulf War, to the conflict in Libya and many others.
“When I arrived in Sarajevo, I was shocked. It was freezing cold, the fighting and snipers were everywhere; this was war,” Baz recalls.
“I was used to the ‘Lebanese way’ of doing war. You know you fight, yes, but then you would take a break, you would go to the mountains, and later you would come back,” he jokes.
Because he was French-Lebanese, Baz says that some of his colleagues and members of the local community questioned his neutrality, a claim he rejects. Baz also believes that being a war photographer is “a most egoistic profession; whether you are a man or a woman, you should be single”, as it is too difficult to leave a family behind when heading out on a new mission.
Baz describes his years as a war photographer with a troubling analogy: “It’s a drug. You want it again and again. I was like [French comic-book character] Obelix – I fell into it as a kid and I became addicted.”
In 2014, he was supposed to cover the war in Gaza, but in the end he realised he could not go. His body and his mind had finally had enough, and he realised he was struggling with PTSD.
Although he has since gone through therapy, Baz says that he has lost all interest in war, and does not even want to look at war stories any more. Today, he works for AFP’s corporate department.
Over all the years, some of Baz’s strongest feelings have been on shooting funerals: “There were times when I refused to shoot on these occasions. It seemed an invasion of privacy to me.”
Combining art and technology
When George Azar, an American of Lebanese descent, arrived in Beirut in 1981, his childhood memories of summer visits to the country were shattered.
“When I returned to Lebanon as an adult, what I witnessed resembled a scene from Mad Max – a world of chaos where everyone had a gun,” Azar says. “If you had a gun, you had authority. It was a crazy world, but overlaid over a beautiful city and places I was attached to.”
As he describes in the documentary Beirut Photographer, Azar travelled to Lebanon to counter what he felt was a media bias in how the conflict was being covered by the US media. Setting him apart from other foreign correspondents was his determination to live in Beirut for several years during the war, as opposed to colleagues who parachuted in and out of the country and the conflict.
Azar long knew he wanted to be a journalist. The first car bomb he went to shoot revealed to him the true scope of the conflict. “I thought I would see an exploded vehicle,” he recalls. “When I arrived, I saw the entire block had been torn apart.”
Thinking back to his early work, he believes that the content was able to compensate for his lack of technical expertise. His career soared as he covered several conflicts, working as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker and winning numerous awards. Today, he is back in Lebanon, where he teaches at the American University of Beirut.
The motivation for being a war photographer during Lebanon’s civil war was never economic, he recalls.
“You do it [war photography] because it is important to you,” he says, recalling numerous close calls during the conflict, including being abducted six times and nearly executed.
Unlike some colleagues who describe the 1980s as the golden age for war photographers, Azar has a different perspective. There were fewer war photographers during that time, except for at certain peak moments, and the remuneration was no better or worse than it is today, he says.
He describes photography as a combination of art and technology, with the two elements “intimately intertwined”.
Azar also recalls debating whether it was “right” to record a video of an incident that unfolded during the 2006 Gaza war.
“When my driver did not show up for work one morning in November 2006, I rushed to his village after hearing it had been hit by Israeli artillery fire. When I arrived, I found him sitting on the doorstep of this house in pools of his family’s blood. I was faced with the moral question of whether or not to film. After comforting him a bit, I chose to film the event, so that it would not go unrecorded, for the sake of history,” Azar says.
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A changing profession
For Manoukian, what has changed radically since Lebanon’s civil war is a growing awareness of the impact pictures have in shaping public opinion. Taking a photo in the 1980s remained more abstract, she says, while images today have become increasingly important tools of influence, and photojournalists have become even bigger targets.
“If they don’t want you there, they shoot you,” Manoukian says.
American war photographer Kate Brooks agrees, noting that the job has become “far more dangerous than ever before. The risk of kidnapping and the different types of weapons used at the front line make it extremely high-risk.”
Social networks, such as Facebook, have also emerged as a way to check on a photographer’s views and neutrality, Baz notes: “Today, every single photo editor in the world knows every photographer in Syria because of the social networks.”
War photography is far more dangerous than ever before. The risk of kidnapping and the different types of weapons used at the frontline make it extremely high-risk.
Equipment has also evolved, with more highly sophisticated lenses and camera sensors – and when photojournalists want to avoid calling attention to themselves, they can use something as discreet as an iPhone to take photos of publishable quality.
To Azar, the situation in a warzone is much bigger than any one individual: “People overestimate your ability to affect it, but there are times when you have to act,” he says.
A recent image of a little boy sitting in an ambulance in Aleppo sparked public criticism, even though rescue workers were present outside the frame, Manoukian says.
“People who criticise these situations do not realise what it’s like to be in a war situation,” she says. “Each one does his job the best they can, and each one has a role. Of course you help before taking pictures there if you need to.”
Brooks, who photographed the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kabul in 2011, says that she found herself unable to take pictures as she was busy helping the wounded, who needed urgent medical attention.
Gabriel Chaim, a Brazilian photographer and filmmaker who specialises in covering conflicts, recalls spending seven months on the front lines in Mosul, Iraq. He often dropped his camera to focus on helping fleeing civilians, he says.
“Each picture I post that shows the reality on the ground, and that makes a person question the reason for their existence when looking at the shot, motivates me to continue,” Chaim says. However, he pays a price for this, as he is frequently away from his family, missing important milestones in his children’s growth.
With regard to gender stereotypes in war photography, Manoukian says the situation still needs improvement, but there are definite advantages to being a woman in situations of conflict: “We’re generally considered less threatening, more apolitical and grossly underestimated – not to mention we can access the world of women.”
In a rapidly changing media landscape where amateur photographers abound, Azar and others stress the importance of having a good photo editor who can evaluate the quality of the images being presented. Meanwhile, the risks and ethical dilemmas inherent in the profession continue to grow alongside the importance of photography as a means of documenting conflict zones around the world.